Mindfulness meditation reduces the perception of pain by “separating it from the self”, according to a study published in July 2022 in the journal BREAD.
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People have used mindfulness meditation for centuries to try to ease their pain, but it’s only recently that neuroscientists have been able to test if and how it actually works.“, underlines the press release of the researchers.
In one such study, Fadel Zeidan, associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and his colleagues (1) measured the effects of mindfulness practice on pain perception and brain activity.
They showed that it interrupts the communication between the areas of the brain involved in the sensation of pain and those which produce the feeling of self.
In the proposed mechanism, pain signals still travel from the body to the brain, but the person does not feel ownership of these sensations as much, so their pain and suffering are reduced.
One of the central tenets of mindfulness is that you are not your experiences. You are training to experience thoughts and feelings without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and this experience finally shows how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.» (Mindfulness meditation: 4 exercises to get started)
Zeidan and his colleagues conducted this experiment with 40 participants. A brain scan was first taken while painful heat was applied to their leg and they assessed their level of pain.
The participants were then divided into two groups. One group completed four 20-minute mindfulness training sessions during which they were instructed to focus on their breathing and reduce self-referential functioning by first acknowledging their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, then letting them be without judging them or reacting to them. Members of the control group spent their four sessions listening to an audiobook.
On the last day of the study, the brain activity of both groups was measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were now instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while members of the control group rested. eyes closed.
Participants who meditated reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness.
We were very happy to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these pain-relieving effects.“said the researcher. “
This is a truly important discovery for the millions of people who are looking for a quick, non-pharmacological treatment for pain.»
Mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus (an area of the brain that relays incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain) and parts of the default mode network (a collection of areas of the brain most active when a person is letting their mind wander or processing their own thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world).
One of these default mode regions is the precuneus, an area involved in the fundamental characteristics of self-awareness, and one of the first regions to disconnect when a person loses consciousness. Another region is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several subregions that work together to process how you value experiences. The more these areas were decoupled or deactivated, the more the participant reported pain relief.
For many chronic pain sufferers, what most affects their quality of life is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes with it.“says Zeidan. “
Their pain becomes part of their identity as an individual – something they cannot escape – and it exacerbates their suffering.»
By mitigating the self-referential assessment of pain, mindfulness meditation could be a new method of pain treatment, the researchers believe. It is also free and can be practiced anywhere. Nevertheless, Zeidan hopes that the trainings can be made even more accessible and incorporated into standard outpatient procedures.
We feel we are on the verge of discovering a new non-opioid pain processing mechanism in which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia. We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential in various disorders.»
For more information on psychological interventions for pain management, see the links below.
(1) Gabriel Riegner, Valeria Oliva, William Mobley, Grace Posey and Youngkyoo Jung.
Psychomedia with sources: UC San Diego, Pain.
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